Dave Isley drives with speed and races the clock
by Karla Rendon
photography by Helen Arase
Ontario, California is home to a convenient local airport, the largest one-level shopping mall in the West and the site of an unlikely contradiction—a retired contractor who races on salt flats in his golden years. Dave Isley, 64, lives in a conventional Ontario house within earshot of nearly constant Union Pacific train track rumble with his wife Sandra, 54, and their two black Labrador retrievers, Bella and Titan. The trains are symbolic to Dave’s lifestyle. Trains are the tortoise. Dave has the hare tucked away in his garage, an ultimate speed machine. Dave Isley is a salt flat racer of note, a man who is reaching for 300 miles per hour in a home built salt flat race car. His style of racing is precise, demanding and dangerous. Human beings are not meant to travel that fast while rolling on wheels.
On this visit, his salt flat racer, nicknamed “The Patton Steel Special,” is carefully protected. Its dandelion yellow paint color is an ode to Dave’s sponsor, a friend who owns Patton Steel. For now, the yellow speed demon rests, its bright paint covered with a light cast of dust. It sports four thin black tires with very little rubber. Dave shaves off the rubber and makes sure the tires are smooth and bald for a swift glide across salt flat courses. Two parachutes rest on the vehicle’s back, offering breaking safety. A space so tiny that it is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare houses the driver. The car’s sleek body is intimidating with its sharp look, reminding visitors of its aggressive potential. When awake, it reaches speeds faster than 200 miles per hour.
Building a speed demon
“I started with a piece of crap,” Dave chuckles, apologizing for his language, while describing his first car, now gone. Then he looks at this second car, a yellow gleaming machine. He is modest as he tells how he built this car from scratch with occasional contributions from supportive friends. Dave built the powerful, 496 cubic in Chevrolet 1100+ horsepower engine himself. “I do virtually all the work on the car, but I usually have a friend help me,” he says. “I have a good friend who’s an engine builder, and he helps me tremendously with how to approach the engine building, and I discuss a lot of those things with him.” The engine has a four-speed transmission and the rear end is a quick change, allowing to switch into different gears in swift action. “Originally we had another Chevy engine that we set some records with, and that was while I was building this engine. The other engine was a 439 cubic engine with about 980 horsepower, and, with that one, we went 246 miles per hour at Bonneville.”
The only part cannibalized from his first race car is the fiberglass body that now hugs his new yellow, red and black arrowed vehicle. Dave was just not satisfied with the first car and kept perfecting it, eventually starting over. There was no accident; he says he has never had an accident or been injured while racing. Still, this is a dangerous sport. “I thought his racing was pretty scary, and it was probably after the first couple of times when I relaxed and thought, ‘if he’s going to kill himself, he’s going the way he wants to go,’” Sandra laughs. Dave laughs along with his wife and jokes that she took out a life insurance policy on him. “This was his thing so I’m completely fine with that.” Sandra says after a long comedic moment with her husband. “I relaxed after that, really. I think it was four or five runs when I started to relax. He’s going to go however he goes, and that’s his favorite thing to do.”
The yin to his yang
The couple has a peaceful household relationship, and despite their “Go Away” doormat, Dave and Sandra are an inviting couple whose warm and goofy-jokester relationship welcomes guests. Sandra has served as a medical dosimetrist for the past 25 years, and her career path cannot be any more different from Dave’s racing passion. Sandra’s responsibility primarily includes caring for others while Dave’s passion has him focusing on a goal. A non-traditional couple, Dave and Sandra were married more than a year ago after dating for 11 years. “I didn’t want to do that little thing where everyone gets married at 10 years,” Sandra says, chuckling. “It just seems too weird to have the traditional 10 year wedding. I wanted 11 just to be different.” Dave and Sandra were neighbors who would nod to each other as a greeting, but it was not until Dave asked Sandra to dinner when they got to know each other. Dave originally planned to have dinner at a French restaurant for their first date; however, the restaurant was closed. The two settled for The Macaroni Grill. “It was horrible,” Dave jokes as Sandra laughs and denies that was how their first date went. “No, no, it was great. We had a really nice time.” Sandra reflects on their decade old first date and adds, “We talked a lot.” They laughed a lot too—like the way they continue to do. When together, they act like young souls.
Dave and Sandra are greeted every day by their pups, Bella and Titan. The labs are well loved and considered children. Bella and Titan are even in their will. Bella was acquired as a puppy. Titan, though, was a stray, hanging around Dave’s old cabin, turned over by him to the “pound.” Dave’s conscience got the better of him, and he called the shelter every day. Then it came down to the last day of Titan’s life. Dave could not stand for Titan to be euthanized, so he rescued the dog. This all came as a surprise to Sandra. She first learned about the adoption during her birthday dinner when a friend asked how the dog was doing. Soon, Titan was surrounded by unconditional love.
Man vs. speed
Since retiring from his job as a housing contractor, Dave has dedicated his time toward improving his speed demon race car, building his own body panels, wheels and engine. Dave says he is hands on this way because parts are immensely expensive, and he is not able to afford to have someone else do it. Now retired, he performed construction work for his career. He never attended college but self-taught himself auto mechanics. “We [he and his three member team] make no money, but we spend a lot of money doing this.” Despite the complexities and technicalities of race car engineering, he has learned how to build his car from reading books, along with help from his friends. “I never had a formal education with any of the things I do to build the car and maintain it,” Dave admits. With practice over the years, he has become a successful builder and mechanic but remains modest about his ability to engineer race cars. “As I’ve done it more, I’ve become more and more educated, I guess, in the field. I don’t consider myself an engine builder, but I get the job done with help and advice with people in the engine building field. I’m fortunate that I have mechanical ability. I’m a self-taught welder, and I paint everything I do. I don’t do the lettering part, but I paint it, and I do the welding and construction.”
When his adopted son Brian was a child, Dave would build go-karts with him for fun, and that sparked his racing interest. “That was interesting and fun, but ultimately [Brian] decided he didn’t want to do it at the level that needed to be done if he were going to race, so we got out of that,” Dave says. And while Dave now dedicates his leisure time to the Patton Steel Special, he originally fixed and raced motorcycles. “I decided that now that I was older and have a little more discretionary income, I wanted to pursue some sort of racing, so I started racing the motorcycle.” He once said he would “never go to the dark side of race cars.” That changed because of the difficulty to actually race his motorcycle. “In other words, there weren’t enough local tracks, and I was going have to travel more to do it, so I made a decision to do land speed racing, which is what we do now.” He still has his motorcycle and takes pride in the bike. “I’d make it a coffee table if my wife would allow it in the house,” Dave jokes. “It’s kind of a museum piece now.”
Racing the clock
While some picture car racing as more than a dozen cars competing for first place on a NASCAR track, salt flat racing is actually racing against time to break a time record. “We don’t race against each other,” Dave says. “We are racing against a record in the book, and that’s always our goal.” For every race, cars are separated into classes depending on the vehicle’s model, and each vehicle must pass safety regulations concerning proper seat belts and cage dimensions where the driver’s frame must meet a certain size.
Dave has entered in competitions in Bonneville, Utah and El Mirage, California, where he was able to break records at both tracks and enter the 200 Mile Club—an honor bestowed to those who reach at least 200 miles per hour. He has reached speeds of 276.175 at Bonneville. He proudly wears a Bonneville shirt that says, “Bonneville, 200 Mile Club.” A jacket adorned with similar lettering is proudly worn in the same fashion. Dave uses different methods and strategies to achieve his goals and to continue breaking records. His strategy is to achieve each record in stages rather than give it his all in one event. Racing is technical, strategic, demands immense talent and is dangerous. Because it is difficult to race salt flat cars, race outcomes can be unpredictable. “Sometimes, there are things you want to try, and we get so few attempts with the car to try out things,” Dave says. With so few opportunities to race on a salt flat, it is vital to make key adjustments to race cars. “In a race weekend, we might get one or two passes on the track, and that’s all. You don’t get a lot of things to try out so you have to make a judgment call with what you’re going to do with the package: your tires, your gearing and tune-up. You really have to look at the advantages of what you’re trying out and the disadvantages.” One vital factor of racing is a car’s tune-up. “When you optimize your tune-up, you get the most power, but when you get the most power, the opportunity to damage the engine becomes higher,” Dave warns. Since salt flat racing takes much strategy and consideration, Dave feels people join racing without considering their goals, and that leads to failure and being discouraged. “A lot of people think this is easy and come into it and don’t accomplish their goals. Even though they are sometimes prepared, sometimes the stars have to align,” he says about racing newcomers. “A lot of it is what you can do. How fast you can go is the challenge, with the desire to accomplish your goals.”
Currently, Dave is striving to reach at least 300 miles per hour. He is coming closer to reaching his goal as he has already reached more than 275 miles per hour. As he anticipates and strategizes to complete his next achievement, the yellow speed demon rests, waiting for the next time it will wake and continue with its fast-paced, aggressive lifestyle.